At the core of Absolutely Fabulous was a paradox. On the one hand, the show skewered all the societal pressure on women to be desirable, fashionable, and, above all, young. On the other, its comedy was entirely based on audiences finding Edina pathetic, nasty, and redundant. The first-season episode “Fat” revolves around Eddy’s increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts to lose a large amount of weight in a week; the same season featured “Birthday,” essentially a 30-minute tantrum thrown by Edina over the idea of turning 40. As the show continued, popping up only intermittently between 1996 and 2012 with revivals and Christmas specials and anniversary episodes, Edina only got older, and more desperate. The new film Absolutely Fabulous finds her facing 60 or thereabouts, still falling plastered out of taxis, and sadder than ever. All she ever wanted, she cries, is “to not be fat and old, and to keep the party going.”
The concept of aging incapably has been a recurring theme throughout Saunders’s career. Her earliest comedy act, with French, when the two were in their 20s, was called the Menopause Sisters. In 2001, a season-four episode of AbFab titled “Menopause” revolved around Edina facing career disgrace, Patsy being diagnosed with osteoporosis, and Saffron organizing a menopause support group meeting in Edina’s home to try and make the two face their future with dignity. “My name is Jobo, and I’m happy to be having the menopause, ” one woman declares. “I have hot flushes, and memory loss, and sometimes when I sneeze, I pee.” Patsy raises her hand and counters, “Patsy Stone, I hope you’re wearing thick underpants.” Edina furiously urges everyone to sit on black plastic trash bags so they won’t ruin the furniture. For more than two decades on the air, the show was clear: The prospect of getting old was hilariously mockable; the only thing funnier was refusing to do so.
Absolutely Fabulous the movie is no more substantial in plot than many of the show’s 30-minute episodes. Edina, facing career failure as usual and desperate to sign a new high-profile client, gets word from Patsy that Kate Moss is looking for a new PR person (English-speak for publicist). Edina and Patsy rush to a party where Moss is in attendance, but with her typical clumsiness and maladroit posturing, she accidentally pushes the supermodel into the River Thames. A festival of national mourning begins in Britain, and Edina is arrested for attempted murder. But worse for her than the prospect of going to prison is the fact that she’s suddenly a pariah, “fat and old and hated and nothing.”
In its first 30 minutes or so, Absolutely Fabulous feels like a return to form. The physical comedy of watching Eddy and Patsy, absolutely trollied, tumble down staircases and fall on their faces is always funnier than it should be; meanwhile AbFab is sharper than ever on the vampiric nature of the quest for youth. Waking up, Patsy injects Botox into her face while Edina puts on her makeup. At a party attended by London’s fashion glitterati, bystanders discuss the various anti-aging merits of toddler blood and fetus stem cells. There’s an odd parade of cameos from It Girls, fashion industry names, actual stars, and C-list celebrities: Jourdan Dunn, Lulu, Emma Bunton, Stella McCartney, Gwendoline Christie (“it’s Brienne of Tarth!” Saffron’s daughter exclaims), Jerry Hall, Janette Tough (in one of the film’s more dubious moments, the white actress plays an Asian fashion designer), Jon Hamm, and the perpetual Christopher Biggins.